It's meant to conjure up memories of earlier, better films. But the stodgy, stage-bound and static movie version of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan aims for the heartstrings and strikes only a few notes.
The Joy Luck Club director Wayne Wang's film of the Lisa See best-seller has a can't-miss premise: modern friends practicing the ancient Chinese tradition of loatong, a contractual friendship-for-life arrangement made between young girls. Like the book, it lets us see how their lives parallel those of two similar friends from China's past.
So we are treated to a downbeat modern story in which Nina (Li Bingbing) slips into a guilty funk when an accident puts her estranged "eternal sister," Sophia (Gianna Jun), in a coma. And we see the same actresses play Lily and Snow Flower, bound together in loatong in the 1820s, the epoch when women endured loveless arranged marriages and the cruel practice of foot-binding from childhood.
Lily and Snow Flower used "the secret language between women" to send each other notes penned on a fan, notes covering their friendship, marriage and child-rearing struggles. Nina hunts for this fan as she hopes to find out why Sophia seemed to distance herself from her before the accident.
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"Only through pain will you find beauty," the footbinder assures the tiny girls after their feet are broken, bloodied and shrink-wrapped. "Only through suffering will you find peace."
What we're led to expect is a weeper, "your sister in heart for life" sacrificing for one another, weathering the ironies and vicissitudes of life today measured against the cruelties and hardships women went through for each other in the past.
But Wang fails utterly to recapture his Joy Luck Club poetry. It's a movie without the guts to give this love any depth. It is pretty to look at, but the stolid scenes — actors standing and reading lines — and bad acting (mostly in English, even when it isn't appropriate) bind up Snow Flower in ways that mirror its protagonists in the past. It moves forward in tiny mincing steps on hobbled feet.
The leads struggle to win our sympathy, with each actress having her moments of doubt in her close-ups. What emotion am I supposed to be getting across here?
The film isn't rescued by the arrival of Hugh Jackman, as Sophia's "unsuitable" boyfriend (no, they don't get into Chinese racism here), though Hugh gamely charms and even sings in it.
Despite the locations and informative narrative, almost every scene is missing the spark that would bring the characters to life and immediacy to the story. Snow Flower suggests that Wang, who once held the secret to making tear-jerkers, has lost it.